by Bob Crawford Hartford Wolf Pack Diector, Media Relations and Broadcasting
Greetings from the road!
In what seems like a monthlong journey compared to what we in the Atlantic Division are used to for travel, the Wolf Pack are trekking through the West Division, and faring pretty well after they beat the Utah Grizzlies in overtime in a rare Monday night game, 3-2. That came on the heels of a shutout win Saturday night in San Antonio, after the Pack lost the first game of their four-game trip 3-1 in Houston on Friday.
Last week actually began on home ice, and the Wolf Pack pulled off a huge win on Wednesday night, wiping out a 1-0 deficit with a four-goal third-period outbreak against Manchester on the way to a 4-2 triumph. That stopped a two-game losing streak in the season series against the Monarchs and pulled the Pack into a first-place tie with the division pacesetters. The Wolf Pack were anxious to redeem themselves after a sub-par effort the previous Saturday against Manchester, in a game they lost 4-1 and felt they were badly outplayed by the Monarchs. Wednesday's game actually looked like it might be even worse at the start, as the Monarchs came out with good jump and really controlled the first six or eight minutes or so. They got a goal just 2:47 in and had several other real solid scoring chances, and only stellar work in the net by Jason LaBarbera prevented the Granite-Staters from building a comfortable lead.
The tide started to turn about midway through the first, and the Wolf Pack really dominated the second, forcing Monarch target Mathieu Garon to match LaBarbera's heroics. The Pack put 16 shots on Garon in the middle frame, and the lanky lefty made numerous terrific stops. It was starting to look like it was going to be one of those nights when the puck just refused to go in the net, but Garon committed a critical gaffe at the 3:00 mark of the third when he cleared the puck over the glass, incurring a delay of game penalty. Jamie Lundmark scored on the resultant power play, and that seemed to open the floodgates for the Pack's previously-frustrated offense. Jeff "Pops" MacMillan, the Wolf Pack's leader in plus/minus but a rare source of offense, crashed down from the point and pounded in a goal to put the Wolf Pack ahead, and then Lundmark, who would finish the game with a hat trick, got what would turn out to be the game-winner shorthanded only 1:01 later. That lifted the Pack to the quarter-century mark in home wins for the season (the franchise record is 26) and was the perfect sendoff for the team's longest road trip of the season.
The Houston Aeros might have been wondering if they were ever going to score against LaBarbera, as he had hung zeros on the Texans the last three times the two clubs had met, including that 1-0 shootout win in the school-day game back on November 1st at the Civic Center. The Aeros banged home a real ugly goal to get off that schneid in Friday's first period, though, as a Ray Giroux shot hit LaBarbera, who then found Houston forward Kyle Wanvig practically in his lap, deflected off Bryce Lampman and into the net. LaBarbera was excellent again, however, and the Wolf Pack dictated play for long stretches of that game, but couldn't find their finishing touch. They lost track of the dangerous Kirby Law, the Aeros' leading goal-scorer, on a botched breakout pass late in the second and Law beat LaBarbera on a one-on-one chance, and the Pack could never get that one back.
LaBarbera was perfect the next night, though, and the Wolf Pack beat the San Antonio Rampage for the second time in 11 days, 2-0 in San Antonio. This turned out to be quite a rough-and-tumble affair, and referee Bob Langdon took an old school, "let the boys play" approach, awarding a total of one power play the whole evening. A scary hit by the Rampage's Juraj Kolnik on Ryan Hollweg set the tone early on, as Kolnik drove Hollweg's head into the glass dangerously. There were four fights in the first period, and then Dominic Moore knocked San Antonio forward Ryan Jardine out of the game in the third period, as he saw Jardine coming to run him and caught Jardine with a stiff blow up high.
Somewhat lost in all the chippiness was a two-goal performance by Jozef Balej and LaBarbera's 20th career AHL shutout. They were two nifty tucks by Balej, who also had the Pack's only goal in Friday's game. We all remember how potent the skilled Slovak was in last year's playoffs, and it looks to me like he's starting to get that same gleam in his eye as this season cranks into its final quarter. And LaBarbera won't threaten his own league record of 13 whitewashes that he set last year, but what do you know, here he is at 26 wins this season, and he has more than answered the question of whether 2003-04 was a case of him being a one-year wonder.
Monday's game was another tight battle, against a Grizzly team that has had a miserable season. They had fought the Wolf Pack hard in two losses in Hartford around the New Year, and might have had some extra motivation to prove they weren't as bad as their record, after they were absolutely skewered in a long article in the Sunday Salt Lake Tribune, in one of the more egregious examples of piling on a team when it's down that I've ever read since I've been following sports. And they forced the Wolf Pack to play from behind a couple of times Monday night, building leads of 1-0 and 2-1 before Hollweg scored a great hard-driving goal, helped by linemates Lundmark and Jed Ortmeyer, to tie it in the third. Then Utah got a bad break in overtime when an accidental high-stick by Dana Lattery clipped Moore. You could almost sense the Grizzly bench saying "here we go again" to themselves before Jeff Hamilton, who had gone an un-Hamilton-like five games without a goal, sent a screamer into the Utah net for the winner with less than 45 seconds left.
It certainly is a different experience getting out of New England and sampling what the travel is like for these western-based teams. The whole airport deal, what with check-in, security, baggage claim, etc., just wears me out, so it's hard for me to imagine how these teams don't just get totally gassed by it by the time the end of the year rolls around. Getting to the different cities is quite enjoyable, though, and waking up here in Utah with snow-capped mountains all around, or moseying down the Riverwalk in San Antonio, definitely helps your mind-set. And both Houston and San Antonio share brand-new, state-of-the-art arenas with NBA teams, so it's a markedly different feel from a lot of the older, smaller buildings in the league. Not better, just different, a nice variety in a long season.